He was up for the Challenge

With air travel down more than 60 percent in 2020 versus 2019, a group of Triangle-area partners (Duke, NC State, NCCU, UNC, RTI and RDU Airport) launched the Triangle Impact Challenge 2021: FlyRDU to develop practical solutions that would restore passenger confidence in air travel. ISE senior Ryan Pecaut and four students from NC State’s industrial design program were the only students daring enough to accept the challenge and joined the field of 16 to compete for $120,000 in grant funding. It was a chance to work with RDU Airport to redefine the future of safe travel in the Triangle.

Triangle Impact Challenge 2021
The Triangle Impact Challenge launched to address the impact of the pandemic on air travel

The challenge provided Pecaut with an opportunity to do something he had always wanted to do, but the pandemic has all but eliminated, work with the airline and airport industries. “This was an opportunity I couldn’t miss,” explained Pecaut. “Being able to combine my interest in the air travel industry with real-world COVID-19 mitigation strategies was something I became very excited about.”

So, Pecaut joined the challenge and quickly partnered with Larry Lockett, Rob Quezada, Yi Li and Patrick Burton — NC State industrial design students — to pair their complementary engineering and design skills. Later, Dr. Sangeeta Joshi from Duke University Hospital and Dr. Jonathan Thornburg at RTI International joined the team. Joshi brought her experience with infectious disease transmission and treatment, which helped with the design solutions for airport environments. Thornburg provided industry insights, lots of experience in proposal writing and connecting the team with other industry leaders. Now that they had assembled the right mix of talent and skills, they turned their attention to concurring the challenge.

The team focused their strengths on cleaning and touchpoint elimination in airport environments by closely analyzing the boarding process. “RDU invited our team on site for a walkthrough of airport facilities as well as regular Zoom meetings with RDU leadership,” said Pecaut. These meetings allowed the team to learn more about current conditions and ask questions to develop a solution. Their project addressed passenger safety during the boarding process on the bridges that connect planes to the airport terminal. “These are typically a spot where queues build-up,” explained Pecaut. “It was something we wanted to prevent as well as mitigate the risk.” Although the team created an innovative solution, how would they hold up against the 15 professional teams?

“I knew we had some big competition going into this. Having seen some of the project briefs online, it was clear that lots of very experienced professionals were competing against us, and we would need to work hard if we wanted to get to the finals,” confided Pecaut. The team spent many late nights working on getting together their proposal, renderings and video content to present. “And this was all on top of our demanding senior years in college,” shared Pecaut. 

When he received word that his team had made the finals and ultimately finished in the top five, Pecaut was excited and proud of the whole team. “It’s incredible that an undergrad team made it as far as we did, especially when compared with some of the ground-breaking research and solutions faculty from other schools presented,” he said. “Ultimately, I think our success came from having a team with so many different points of experience that we could bring to the table.”


The RDU Airport launched the Triangle Impact Challenge in September 2020 to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on air travel. They wanted to identify additional ways to make air travel safe and welcoming by leveraging local universities and research institutes’ talents.

The challenge is divided into four themes: 

  1. Passenger Transit
  2. Cleaning and Touchpoint Elimination
  3. Airport Operations and Employees
  4. Aircraft Safety

RDU hoped that the submissions would range from new technologies to proposed health screenings, operational adjustments or any other advancement that could improve the travel experience by limiting the spread of illness within these themes.

Pecaut’s team and the other finalists were announced at the end of December, with the top three winners announced in January.